Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Imagination & Art

"[the rules] provide the framework around which you build a game of simplicity or tremendous complexity -- your time and imagination are about the only limiting factors, and the fact that you have purchased these rules tends to indicate that there is no lack of imagination..."

Thus wrote Gary Gygax in the first paragraph of his introduction to Men & Magic (OD&D, volume 1), and every Dungeons & Dragons rule set since have included some similar words regarding the importance of imagination to the playing of the game.

Just what is imagination? The dictionary definition ranges from "the formation of a mental image or concept of that which is not real or present" (AHD) to "the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality" (MWD) to simply "the ability to create pictures in your mind; the part of the mind that does that" (OED). Conceptualizing ideas...especially visual ideas (images, pictures)...would seem to be the main purpose/use of one's imagination, and we can thus infer that it is this ability (to mentally conceptualize images) that is so important to the D&D hobby.

It's important to a LOT of things (duh) but it is of utmost importance to a tabletop game that utilizes no board, and that requires participants to create mental images in their heads of the action occurring with little more than a handful of dice, textual notes, and narrated description to help. Players that fail to possess exceptional imagination will have a damnably hard time playing D&D, especially if the Dungeon Master, too, lacks the faculty to visualize and/or effectively describe their vision. Fortunately, imagination as a mental faculty can be exercised, becoming stronger with training and effort.

What might not be readily apparent, however, is the importance of external stimulus to imagination. Imagination, as a process, involves arranging the relationship of ideas and images to form a mental construct, but these ideas/images/relationships are not generated from nothing, nor is their significance/meaning. Instead these things come from our memories, both long- and short-term, and while memories can be created from our own imagination, their original impetus must necessarily derive from outside ourselves, from something learned.

FOR EXAMPLE: to a person unfamiliar with the term "minotaur," no mental image can be constructed with the simple utterance of the word. However, if I explained that a minotaur has the body of a man and the head of a bull, the person could use imagination to construct an image in their mind...provided they have learned (i.e. have memories) of both "a man" and "the head of a bull." Lacking one or both of these terms, the imagination will fail to produce a concept of a minotaur, unless more elementary descriptions are used.

For your memory.
All of which is (hopefully) really basic stuff to grasp. But fantasy role-playing games are not so basic (not even the basic ones!) and require substantially more mental gymnastics to play effectively...and even more so when one considers not only the need to use the mind for imagination (in play) but also the need to formulate strategies and tactics based on both situations/scenarios presented AND the rule set being used. That's a lot of computing power for the poor brain to handle (and, perhaps, part of the reason that some folks find the playing of D&D to be beyond their abilities).

All of which is preamble to declare the immense importance of artwork to the role-playing game. We've all heard the old saw "a picture is worth a thousand words" but in the sphere of fantasy RPGs, a picture's value may be even more valuable. Those visual illustrations found in the rule books work to imprint memories in the minds of the reader...memories that will be used in the process of imagination to form and arrange concepts and mental images, providing meaning and significance that will become the foundational building blocks needed in a game that often times emulates situations not found in our "normal reality." What is our mental image of an orc or goblin or dragon? How about a lucerne hammer or studded leather armor? From where do we draw our memory of a magic-user? Is it a man in cape pulling a rabbit out of a top hat?

Consider for a moment how important it is for an RPG like Dungeons & Dragons to provide visual images as "seeds" for the imagination; consider what you, dear reader, would be left with for your imagination withOUT the illustrations provided in countless fantasy gaming products. For me, I know that as a child I was exposed to many fantasy images prior to my first encounter with D&D...it was my love of all things fairy tale and fantastical that first drew me to a game involving the same.

[I would guess that the bulk of my gaming is informed by primordial memories of Ray Harryhausen "Sinbad" films, with a huge helping of Rankin-Bass Hobbit on the side]

[younger gamers would probably draw their mental images of fantasy from Jackson's Lord of the Rings films (can you believe those things are 20 years old?!) ...or perhaps Harry Potter.  *sigh*]

Anyway, once you've considered how important artwork is for a fantasy role-playing game, and how integral such artwork is to the formulation of a foundation for imagining the actual (in-game) action that occurs during play, I'd invite you to reflect on just what that artwork illustrates in the instructional, core texts of "the world's most popular role-playing game," and how said artwork differs across editions of the games. And then consider how those differences in artwork might influence differences in play.

I'll be writing about that in my next post.
; )


  1. Interesting post, particularly the bit about how the imagination might be trained to improve descriptions. I admit to struggling with coming up with evocative descriptions on the hoof.

    I'm waiting for your follow up post in anticipation.

  2. Looking forward to the follow-up post. I'm assuming you're going to expand in some way on Delta's recent post. Anyway, I'd be interested to hear how your thoughts and observations apply to the art in your own work (B/X Companion, B/X Adventurer, and/or Five Ancient Kingdoms). I'm sitting here flipping through my copy of the Five Ancient Kingdoms booklets (yea, I bought all your stuff back in the day) and noting how your decision to use Ford's illustrations found in Lang's classic work might be also be an example of your argument since you clearly wanted to invoke a certain "Arabian"-related feel and imagination. What about the two other two B/X books?

    1. @ Rambling Cleric:

      Delta’s post was the impetus for this one…I’ll be providing a link in the follow-up.

      The Ford art in 5AK was absolutely intentional of conjuring an “Arabian Nights” feel…while the project didn’t start that way, over the course of writing it, it developed into a Golden Age of Islam version of OD&D. As such, the art was totally appropriate.

      [I’ve actually encountered some “fans” who play 5AK rather exclusively, much to my surprise]

      I will be sure to examine my own books, both in relation to my premise (the importance of art’s impressions) and to the original B/X game. Nearly all the artwork used was commissioned to my specifications (and the artists did excellent work), but my “plan” was governed mainly by intuition and “feel,” rather than intentionality, experience, or forethought.

  3. As a GM, I've always suffered a bit from a propensity to over-describe what the players are seeing; from the clothing of their allies and opponents to the grand vistas of far off alien worlds. I am rather good at descriptions on the fly but must work rather hard not to get carried away.

    This is made even more frustrating [to both my players and myself] by the fact that I A) include lots and lots of illustrations with every session I run and B) I tend to run a lot of established IPs such as Star Trek, Star Wars, and Ghostbusters.

    Do I need to describe the bridge of a Federation Starship? It's a good bet my players have seen one if not several on numerous occasions. Is it important to tell everyone what a given monster looks like if I'm going to show them a picture of it as soon as I finish?

    I've gotten better at it over the decades but it is hard to resist the temptation. I am a visual person. I see the setting, NPCs, and all the elements of each scene in fine detail. I just want everyone to have as good a picture of what's happening in their minds as I have in mine.

    1. Do you not play with a regular group? The desire to over-narrate (especially when you’re providing images and illustrations on top of it) sounds a bit like a trust issue; if you’ve been with the same folks (which I always kind of assumed from your blog postings), I’d figure you have enough rapport built that you can relax a bit of the description.

      Then again, maybe you’re just a storyteller, BA.
      ; )

    2. Me, a Storyteller? LOL Guilty as charged.

      I've always done this so it has little to do with my groups. I just see things so vividly - epic, strange, impossible things - that I can't help wanting others to see them too.

      Also, it's not always about seeing. Pictures don't convey the humidity and sweat sticking to your clothes on a swamp planet, the thunderous sound and shaking Earth of a giant robots steps, or the soft crackle of hair-thin arcs of electricity before the villain Shocktart unleashes a bolt at your hero.

    3. I agree that narrative description does (and should) include more than just visual sensory input.

  4. There's definitely a tonal connection to the expected modes of play and the artwork that goes with the various versions of D&D. And not just the oft-mentioned comparison of TSR versions' grubby treasure hunting Picaros vs. WotC's Big Damn Heroes boldly facing overpowering monsters.

    I also think one reason people responded so positively to Flying Swordsmen was the art I was able to find and employ in it.

  5. I have to say that the access to images that the internet provides has been a great boon to my games. A single image can create a ton of ideas. They also convey things faster and more efficiently than my words.

    Just comparing the grizzled face of the old legate who runs realm A to the well dressed and dapper legate who runs realm B automatically create a feeling for how those realms differ. I see a picture and know - that dude's a jerk, that gal, she's awesome, that guy, never trust him, etc. Let alone the tone and mood a good scene setting backdrop or monster pic is.

    Really helps with engagement. That being said, I hate the overabundance of exotic weapons and armor with little historic or practical value. I look forward to your take on Delta's post.

  6. Looking forward to the next post.

    Realistically art nostalgia is why I prefer the original B/X books to the retro clones.

  7. Looking forward to reading what you have to say on this. Communicating tone and feel and the little details with art is second-to-none. I'm curious about ways to use art to communicate mechanics.